21 September 2009

Dolmeh-ye sibzamini — or, something I will never make for my mom

Note: The National Council of Inadvertently Hilarious Food has asked me to warn you, the reader of this blog, that the following entry contains at least one picture whose viewing may trigger the violent ejection of liquids from your nose. Please proceed with appropriate caution.

I mentioned, in my second entry here, the "meat problem." As I review recipes and plan my journey through New Food of Life, I have been struck by the carnivorous tone of the book. Outside of the dessert chapter, it's rare to find a dish that isn't centered on meat; everything incorporates some form of beef, or lamb, or chicken, or is cooked with broth. The first ingredient in nearly every recipe in the "Vegetables" chapter, it seems, is "ground meat." The vegetables aren't prepared and eaten simply as vegetables; the meat is blended right in.

This, obviously, is not how we're used to eating in America. We're accustomed to meals composed of discrete elements, of easily identifiable and entirely separate players. Here's the protein centerpiece (pick one: steak, fried chicken, slab of meat loaf), here's the vegetable side (corn, broccoli with cheese, green salad), and here's the starch (mashed potato, garlic bread, dinner roll). With the exception of soups and stews, our plates are carefully demarcated into taxonomic zones, each occupied by a representative of its type. (Idle speculation: perhaps the inevitable result of our obsession with the food groups?)

Many international cuisines don't bother with this slightly fussy partitioning, and are happy to throw everything together. There's the Chinese stir-fry, of course, or some biryanis, or Thai curry stews, to name just the more obvious examples. Heck, how about pizza? And Persian recipes are no different. When you think about it, why not break down the borders between the food types, and make a single dish containing everything? It's just a different way of thinking about eating.

Now, it should be said that the book's preoccupation with meat, as I understand it, is not necessarily strictly traditional. If I'm hearing the Princess correctly, Iran's rural population, in practice, can't always afford to feed themselves meat at every meal; they have better things to spend their money on, and slaughtering valuable livestock is not done on a whim. They carefully save their resources in order to treat themselves and their family and neighbors during celebrations (weddings and such) and holiday festivals. Apparently, it wasn't until the slow rise of an affluent middle class, and the concentration of wealth in the cities, that meat became an expected part of regular eating, and only among certain segments of the population. Even now, the Princess tells me, it's still common in the hinterlands to sit at a table whose dishes are largely vegetarian, with protein added only in the form of eggs and dairy.

Naturally, this leads me to ponder the historicity of the recipes in New Food of Life. It makes sense, given that the book targets a middle-class readership, for the recipes to reflect their upscale roots. And, sure enough, author Najmieh Batmanglij has written other cookbooks, including Silk Road Cooking, which is a collection of vegetarian recipes. In that book's introduction, she says:
When contemplating the cookery of Iran or of the Middle East, for example, most Westerners think of meat kabobs, which certainly are popular fare, especially as street food and for celebrations. But Persians eat meat sparingly at home and, as in every other culture, save extravagant meat dishes for special occasions and grand festivities. On the other hand, they prepare a wide range of grain, vegetable and fruit dishes, delicious creations barely known outside of the country.
Which brings me to the selection of this week's recipe. These apparent contradictions were buzzing around the front of my mind as I leafed through the "Vegetables" chapter, reading recipe after recipe in which a core of meat-based stuffing is surrounded by a non-meat enclosure of some kind.

And then I landed on the description of one dish, and something clicked. I said to myself, "Oh, the hell with it. I'm makin' meat and potatoes."

Hence: dolmeh-ye sibzamini.

"Sibzamini" means "potato," so that part's obvious. The word "dolmeh" may ring a bell for some people; you will probably recognize "dolma" (or "dolmades") from the menus of Greek restaurants. We're most familiar with this in the form of stuffed-and-wrapped grape leaves, containing a mix of rice, spices, and usually minced meat. There are lots of other versions, though. The word is originally Turkish, and means, literally, "thing that is stuffed (filled)." Basically, if you can fill a vegetable with a stuffing, you can make dolma.

Iran has the grape-leaf dolmeh, but other forms can be found. Cabbage-leaf dolmeh are common, for example (and I'll be making those shortly). New Food of Life has recipes for stuffing eggplants, bell peppers, tomatoes, and so on, and I'll get to all of them eventually. On this day, though, since I was simultaneously contemplating the differences between American and Persian food and the role of meat on the Persian table, the moment I saw the potato recipe, I knew it felt right. This, I thought, would be a fun way to sidestep the "meat problem" — I'll just do meat and potatoes, Iranian style: potato, stuffed with meat. On the side, I'll throw together a quick (and noncanonical) salad.

Here's the ingredient lineup:

It's pretty obvious how this is going to come together. The ground beef, onion, herbs, and tomato paste make a filling, along with a bit of the liquid; the potatoes get hollowed out, and stuffed; and then more of the liquid is used to braise the filled potatoes. The eggs are the only vaguely unusual component: they get hard-boiled, chopped, and added to the stuffing.

After peeling the potatoes, though, I realized that the recipe doesn't make clear how they're supposed to be prepped. It says to cut off the tops, and then remove some of the potato flesh to make a shell. You can do this two ways, though — horizontally or vertically — and the book doesn't say which one. Do we lay the potato on its side, cut off a wide slice, and make it into a boat? Or cut off the tips, stand it on its end, and hollow it out like a chimney? I checked with the Princess, and she didn't know; she'd never had this dish before.

Trying to visualize the end product, I decided that the vertical presentation would be more fun and dramatic, and asked the Princess to help carve the potatoes while I sliced the onions. (She hates raw onions, and is sensitive to the smell. Whenever we're cooking together and divvying up tasks, I take the onion job.)

It's sort of an odd thing to do, so she had a bit of trial and error, figuring out the right knife, and the right way to do the carving. (If you try this yourself, a long, thin, serrated blade turned out to be the way to go.) And a few minutes later:

She does nice work, eh? They look a little like bones, as for ossobuco.

Then the potatoes get sauteed until golden brown:

This accomplishes two things. First, browning develops flavor, as I mentioned in the previous post. But just as important, for this dish, it gives the potatoes some structural integrity. They're peeled, and as they braise, they will soften. If they didn't have the crust, they'd simply fall apart, disintegrating into starchy slush. I mean, I like mashed potatoes just fine, but that's not what we're making here.

While the potatoes are working, I'm also browning the onions, of course. However, it's not the usual step: The recipe actually has me brown the onions and the ground beef at the same time!

I know, it's totally, totally crazy. I felt like I was throwing out everything I'd learned up to this point.

As that settles into the skillet, I carefully remove the browned potatoes from their oil, stand them up to drain, and grab the end caps that had been removed before the centers were carved out. Then I spend a minute or so rematching the pairs, comparing size and cut of each cap to make sure it goes with its parent potato. I know, I don't really need to do this. But I have the time, and I'm a little bit... let's say particular with my cooking, so I go ahead.

Let's see... Little one goes here...

This looks a bit bigger...

Oh, maybe the potato's upside down, maybe the cap goes on the other end...

Turn this a little bit... Okay, that fits...

I take a quick break to stir the onion and meat in the skillet, and then return to my task.

And after a few more moments, I've got everything matched.

I step back to evaluate my handiwork.


Yeah. I know. I had the same reaction.

I stood there for a moment, blinking, as if unable to process what I was seeing. I think I actually said, "Um," out loud.

Then I started to laugh.

"Hey, baby?" I said. "Come here and look at this."

"Sure." The Princess appears next to me.

A moment of silent consideration. The kitchen clock is ticking.

This, just to remind you, is what she's looking at.

She has the same reaction I do. She stares blankly, and then she snickers.

"This can't be right," I say.

She nods. "I bet we were supposed to make boats," she says.


But, too late now. And it doesn't really matter; I'm sure it's going to taste just fine. Plus, there's more cooking to do, including a braise in tomato juice. That will probably change the color considerably, not to mention the texture, thus reducing or eliminating the, uh, the visual effect.

And, ultimately, it's just us having dinner. It's not like anybody else is going to see these things.

Hey, wait a minute...

Anyway, I turn my back on our temporarily phallic dinner, and work on finishing up the meat stuffing.

A little stirring and sauteeing later, and we're ready to stuff.

I transfer the potatoes into the Dutch oven where they'll be braised, and begin spooning in the filling. And hey, they look better already.

I was definitely curious about the amount of stuffing, and how far it would go in filling the potatoes. It seemed like quite a bit, and I was pretty sure there'd be extra; as I was working I was thinking, in the back of my mind, about what to do with it. An omelette the next morning, perhaps? Maybe a breakfast burrito?

I needn't have worried. The proportion was almost perfect:

Two mouthfuls later, and the skillet is empty.

Almost ready to braise. All I need to do is add the tomato and stock, and replace the potato caps.

Which gives me this very creepy result:

STOP LAUGHING. What are you, twelve?

I drop the lid on the Dutch oven, concealing the Dionysian tubers from the delicate eyes of the world, and set the timer for a good long braise. Periodically, I will be lifting the lid and spooning a bit of the liquid over the potatoes, keeping them moist. Because of the heat, my eyeglasses fog up a bit each time, obscuring my view of what's going on. Thankfully.

While the potatoes are cooking, I whip up a lemony green-bean salad. It's not from the book, and there's no recipe; it's just an improvisation. Quickly braised beans, torn romaine, citrus vinaigrette, some toasted Marcona slivers, a little cheese — just something cold and green and crisp, alongside the meat-n-pataters.

Finally, the timer goes off, indicating the potatoes should be done. I turn off the heat and remove the lid, and I find, to my chagrin, that one of the dolmeh has collapsed:

The others are okay, though, and with a combination of a cautiously applied spatula and some painfully burned fingers, I get the stuffed potatoes out of the pot. I plate up a spoonful of the salad, and set the dolmeh next to it.

The Princess and I regard it with quiet bemusement. Then we eat.

How does it taste?

All by itself, a bit meh. The meat filling was delicious, but there was a lot of fairly bland potato starch, and its taste and texture was pretty overpowering. Adding torshi helped a lot; the sourness stimulates saliva production, making the potato much easier to eat. The next time I try something like this, I'll probably follow this variation, where the potatoes are cooked and mashed and formed into a ball to contain the stuffing, very much like a croquette. That way, I can add some flavor directly to the potato, and more easily control the proportion of starch to filling. Maybe I could incorporate torshi and mast directly into the stuffing. Hmmm.

Oh, one more thing to mention: Before we ate, as we were eyeing the unfortunately suggestive object before us, the Princess touched my arm.

"Wait a second," she said. "I have an idea."

She laid the dolmeh on its side, and cut it open:

Now it sort of resembles a hot dog, which is sort of funny, and hardly authentic. But considering that it no longer looks like a GIANT PENIS, I have to conclude, it's a dramatic improvement.

"Next time," we said, "we're carving the potatoes into boats."

Yeah, except, here's the punchline:

Browsing New Food of Life on a later night, I found a full-color picture of the completed dish. And after all of this, it turns out, we did it correctly: the potatoes are hollowed vertically, stood on end, and the caps are set on top. See for yourself, it's on page 44. Which means that this is a recipe that goes into the archive, because I can't think of anybody I'd be comfortable serving it to.

Well, unless I'm asked to cater a bachelorette party. That'd be awesome.

Next up: C is for cookie.


  1. Yep, apparently I'm 12. Good job! :)

  2. you have no guts... This gets served next time my mother in law comes to visit

  3. LOL Great post, and yes, 12 I am. Great job and great writing. I found you through My Year on The Grill.